It may surprise those Reddingites who’ve come to see black bears as resident neighbors that in the early 1980s, hardly a bear could be found in all of Connecticut.

Though they were a common part of the area’s ecosystem when Colonial settlers first reached the New World in the 17th Century, by the mid 1800s they had been all but wiped out due to habitat loss and killing of animals.

“Settlers brought cattle [to the American colonies] and needed to clear land for grazing and farming. By the mid-1800s, Connecticut had about 25% of the forest it once had. With this habitat loss and no regulations on killing wildlife, wolves, mountain lions, bears, and even deer were pretty much gone from the state,” said DEEP bear researcher Melissa Ruszczyk, who will speak at New Pond Farm tonight, Jan. 26, from 7 to 9 p.m.

Luckily for Connecticut’s wildlife, as the Industrial Revolution took hold of the state in the 19th Century, many farmers “left their fields, and all of those empty fields grew back into forests,” Ruszczyk said.

Over many years, black bears started making their way back into the state, and by the 1990s DEEP identified a resident population of black bears in northern towns — female bears with offspring living in the state.

“We’ve had about 25 years of having a population of black bears. They started coming back into northwestern Connecticut, and now the population has expanded across the state — further south and further east” into towns like Redding.

At her presentation at New Pond Farm, Ruszczyk will discuss the history of black bears in Connecticut, the living and feeding habits of the animal, and the dos and don’ts of coexisting with the animals. She’ll also talk about the research and management the DEEP conducts into Connecticut’s resident population of bears.

Today, the DEEP believes there may be roughly 600 to 700 black bears living throughout the state, and they regularly come into contact with humans who have varying degrees of knowledge about the animal.

As a DEEP Resource Assistant with the Furbearer/Bear Program, Ruszczyk said, the “No. 1 thing I deal with is [human] conflicts with black bears. I cover all the aspects of performing research in the field, but I’m also talking to people across the state who are calling in to ask for advice. We try to teach people how to co-exist with the animals.”

The top reason why bears come into close contact with residents, Ruszczyk said, is the widespread use of bird feeders in urban and rural areas by those trying to attract birds to their property. The feeders contain easily accessible seeds that black bears love to eat.

“The top conflict is probably with people seeing bears in their yards at bird feeders,” Ruszczyk said. “They want to see birds, but in many residential areas feeding birds also draws the bears. With so many people feeding birds and subsequently feeding the bears, there’s always a large amount of conflict.”

The DEEP would prefer that residents in areas with large bear populations not use bird feeders during the spring, summer and fall months when bears are the most active — but there’s no law they can enforce on the issue.

“We ask residents to take their feeders down” if they’ve been having bears in their yards, “but there’s no law or ordinance against having a feeder. We do hope that if you’re going to have one up, you be aware that bears are out here and they will get to your feeders and take them down.”

Leaving trash in unsecured containers can also attract bear, Ruszczyk added.

While it is better to give any wildlife a good degree of space if one comes across animals in the wild, black bears are not to be inherently feared. They are not as aggressive as their relatives, grizzly or brown bears, and are more likely to run away from humans than attack them.

Connecticut does not have brown/grizzly bears. However, in areas where they do exist, a female with cubs is more likely to charge to reduce a threat.

“A black bear female with cubs will either run away with cubs in tow, or send her cubs up a tree she will guard. It’s not uncommon for the mother bear to bluff charge or huff at a person until that person has left the area,” Ruszczyk says.


Research


As a furbearer researcher, Ruszczyk is part of a team that conducts animal den checks of 33 mother bears that have been radio-collared by DEEP in years past. Location data, which the collars record every hour, can be downloaded only by hard-wire, so the department tries to reach collared bears every winter — during their den season.

“We replace the collar, take a weight and measurements, and any cubs will get a microchip like a dog gets,” Ruszczyk said.

“Back at the office we upload all of the data and have a year’s worth of information — we’re looking to identify her home range and understand see how she spends her time.”

The researchers will see, for instance, “that in summer, a female may spend time in a particular area and, if comparing it to another nearby female, we can see if they both share a resource and if they’re using that resource at the same time.  We can understand better how these bears interact with each other and the landscape throughout the different seasons.

Replacing radio collars on bears is a delicate task but one DEEP furbearer specialists are especially skilled at, Ruszczyk said.

“We use telemetry to locate the bears [with radio collars], and we’ll approach her den very quietly” during the bear’s den season, which is not a true hibernation period but a time when all bears are much less likely to be active. They also try to approach bear dens when the weather is especially bad, as bears are more likely to stay put during bad weather.

“If it’s a nice day out, and we’re approaching a mother with yearlings (older cubs), there’s a higher probability she’ll run. So when there’s harsh weather and it’s snowing and we’re in a blizzard, that’s when we’re out doing den checks,” Ruszczyk said.

“Unless the bear is already up and running, we’re usually quiet enough that we can approach the den, see the bear and administer the sedative. If we stay hidden as much as we can, the female is likely to stay calm and stay put with her cubs.

“They’re thinking, if I just stay here and don’t move, you can’t see me. She doesn’t want to leave because she has her cubs with her,” Ruszczyk said.

The team uses a long jab-pole loaded with a syringe and needle to administer anesthetic drugs to the mother, and pull her out of the den for measurements before also retrieving the cubs while the mother is knocked out.

“The drug is safe to use,” Ruszczyk says.

Registration is required


Registration for the event, tonight at 7 p.m. at New Pond Farm in West Redding, is required.

Information: http://www.newpondfarm.org/adult_programs.